Kingstonians have reacted strongly to the provincial government’s planned change to the Municipal Elections Act, which would effectively nullify the results of Kingston’s recent referendum on ranked ballot voting.
In Kingston’s 2018 municipal election, Kingstonians voted in favour of the use of ranked ballots for the next municipal election. The referendum question, which asked Kingstonians if they would prefer to use a ranked ballot voting system or to remain with the current voting system (first past the post), resulted in 63 per cent of voters opting in favour of the ranked ballot (Kingstonist found nearly the exact same result in running an informal poll, where 62 per cent of readers said they would vote in favour of a ranked ballot system).
This result, however, was not legally binding due to the less-than-50-per-cent voter turnout. That meant that Kingston City Council was left to ratify the decision, which they did on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2018 at one of the first meetings of the 2018-2022 council – Councillors voted in favour of supporting the results of the referendum question, and thus moving forward with ranked ballots for the 2022 election.
With all of that decided on nearly two years ago, it’s not surprising that Kingstonians were shocked to learn of a proposal by the Ford government to remove the option to use ranked ballots in municipal elections altogether.
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, Attorney General Doug Downey announced the ‘Supporting Ontario’s Recovery Act, 2020.’ The main focus of the proposed legislation is to “provide liability protection for workers, volunteers and organizations that make an honest effort to follow public health guidelines and laws relating to exposure to COVID-19,” the Ontario government said in a press release. If passed, the Act will “provide targeted protection for those who are making an honest effort to follow public health guidelines and laws,” including:
- Healthcare workers and institutions
- Frontline workers who serve the public everywhere from grocery stores to retail stores
- Businesses and their employees
- Charities and non-profit organizations
- Coaches, volunteers, and minor sports associations
And while many were quick to take issue with that aspect of the Act, claiming it would help protect long-term care homes where deaths occurred due to COVID-19 (see later), it was a minor note added into the proposed act that shocked many across the province and here in Kingston.
“The proposed legislation also includes changes to the ‘Municipal Elections Act, 1996’ that would remove the option to use ranked ballots for municipal council elections, making the electoral process consistent across municipal, provincial and federal elections,” the Government of Ontario said in their “quick facts” about the ‘Supporting Ontario’s Recovery Act, 2020.’
Here in Kingston, political representatives and citizen groups in support of ranked ballots were surprised and upset, not only by the proposed change, but also by how this change was proposed.
“Honestly, I think it’s an attack on democracy. Citizen referendums are one of the most direct forms of democracy that are out there. It is a community or a group of citizens getting to have a say on something that impacts their lives,” said Ian Arthur, MPP for Kingston and the Islands.
“It passed with a large majority, it wasn’t even a razor-thin vote, and to unilaterally override the wishes of Kingstonians – you can’t characterize that as anything but an attack on democracy.”
Arthur took issue with how this proposal came to light as part of the ‘Supporting Ontario’s Recovery Act, 2020.’
“Unfortunately, I think that is in line with their approach throughout this pandemic, that they continue to pass legislation that is reflective of their overall agenda, which has not really changed since the election happened,” Arthur said.
“And they’re using the pandemic to cover and to push through changes that are unpopular with them themselves, and not reflective of the needs of the province, or of the people of the province, or the need of the government to adequately respond to this crisis.”
Mayor Bryan Paterson, who voted in favour of supporting the decision of the voters with regard to the ranked ballot referendum question in 2018, also expressed shock and upset.
“I’m disappointed on behalf of all the residents in our community who took the time to learn about ranked ballots and then voted on the referendum question during the last election. I strongly believe that decisions about how public officials are elected should be made by the electorate themselves,” he said. “In 2018 Kingston voted in favour of moving to a system of ranked ballots in 2022, and I believe their decision should be respected.”
Simon Baron, a member of the Yes! Kingston Campaign for Ranked Ballots, shared similar sentiments.
“The announcement came out of nowhere, and we were quite surprised and very disappointed,” he said.
“So many people in Kingston worked very hard to make it happen, and that decision should be respected by politicians.”
But Baron was quick to point out that the fight to allow the option of ranked ballots – and the subsequent votes in favour of doing so here in Kingston – are not yet lost.
“At this point, they’ve announced it, they haven’t actually passed it, so people now need to rally the same way they rallied in the referendum,” he said.
Baron pointed to a petition that’s already been created by Jesse Helmer, a councillor in London, Ont., which was the first city in Ontario to implement the ranked ballot. That petition, which calls on the provincial government to reverse it intentions, is available here.
“You can help by signing the petition, contacting your MPP and, of course, the Premier,” Baron said.
Baron also objected to the manner in which the announcement was made.
“I think it’s very disingenuous to suggest that this has anything to do with COVID-19. It’s very undemocratic to bury this within an omnibus bill that deals with such a wide variety of issues that have nothing to do with how people vote,” he said.
“It’s actually forcing cities to undo a lot of work. London had already implemented ranking ballots and will have to undo it. And Kingston had gone through the process of having the referendum, staff had already gone through a lot of the work on how to do it.”
Dr. Jacob Gordner, also a representative of the Yes! Kingston Campaign for Ranked Ballots, expanded on the amount of work that has already been done, this time referring to work done to educate the public and campaign for ranked ballots.
“It would be impossible to quantify the amount of time, money and work that our dedicated volunteers sacrificed to make this dream a reality. Over months and years, I had the privilege of watching a diverse group of citizens come together to advocate for change they believed in. We were beyond proud that Kingston would be at the forefront of this democratic innovation, and that it was achieved democratically,” he said.
Gordner, too, took issue with the decision of the Ford government and how it was delivered to the public.
“The intention of Doug Ford’s provincial government to circumscribe municipalities’ ability to hold ranked ballot elections is an insult to every Kingstonian who believed that they could work to improve their city. The premier should not be unilaterally overriding local initiatives, especially as they pertain to something as close to home as municipal elections,” he expressed. “I could go on about how underhanded it is to include this change in legislation regarding measures to combat COVID-19, but I think it is obvious to all Ontarians that we can fight this disease without subverting democratic ideals.”
He, too, expressed that the fight for ranked ballots is not over.
“Representative democracy is founded on the premise that leaders have an obligation to listen to the will of the electorate, and we hope that the premier and his government will change course. Neither I, nor the Yes! Kingston campaign, will stop fighting until the people of Kingston get what they voted for,” he said.
Arthur said he will take part in that fight, and stand up for what Kingstonians voted in favour of for their next municipal election. Beyond that, he said his party, the NDP, is opposed to the entire piece of legislation.
“We’re going to vote against the entire bill because it’s horrible and it protects for-profit long-term care facilities who were negligent, causing death. So, I’m going to oppose the entire piece of legislation on multiple fronts, but I will do everything I can to fight against this change,” he said.
“I think I’m obligated to do this because it represents the views of the majority of Kingstonians. Not only do I agree with them and want to see ranked ballots continue in Kingston, but they spoke so clearly, I have to fight for their view on this, for the population’s decision on ranked ballots.”
He said he will present any petitions from his constituents on this matter, but noted he would have to review the wording of any petitions before signing his name to them and thus supporting them.
“I am elected to represent the people of Kingston, and when I see the wishes of the people of Kingston being overridden by this government, of course I’m going to push back against it.”
With files from Cris Vilela.